Old-fashioned fig preserves never go out of style…

on the plate 1

Figs! Yes, I finally hit the fig lottery recently when my family visited upstate South Carolina and the Happy Berry Farm in Six Mile. If you read southbyse.com with any regularity you may know that I have been on the hunt for bountiful fresh figs – the figs of my youth – for a couple of years now.

Even when I was sequestered in northern Alabama (where there’s a farm at every other mile marker) for 18 long months, I had a tough time finding enough local figs to make my beloved fig preserves. So this year I campaigned since May for a long weekend at summer’s end to be spent at my family’s cabin in Oconee County, SC and ‘googled my way across the internets’ to find the Happy Berry.

I checked their online crop reports regularly, relieved to see that their figs would just be coming to harvest the weekend of our trip. They also had a good stand of both blueberries and black berries plus a surprise – table grapes! The abundant rain that has soaked the South slowed the ripening of pretty much everything at the farm. Alas, we arrived during what in past years may have been the end of the season, this year good fortune plopped us smack dab in the middle.

The Happy Berry in Six Mile, SC. They sure made me happy!

The Happy Berry in Six Mile, SC. They sure made me happy!

With buckets in hand, off we went blueberry picking, which was slower than I expected and while there were some blackberries we could try and find, the hot August sun and rising humidity veered us back toward the ‘old tenant house’. Next we began our search for figs, and after scouring the trees, plucking a few pounds. Altogether our haul was about 2 pints of blueberries, 6 pints of blackberries and about 5 pounds of figs. With our cooler full we had to pass on the table grapes, but now that we know – we’ll be back with two coolers next year!

Not many folks outside the south are familiar with whole preserved figs. This is a real shame. Cooked simply into a thick, honey-like syrup, fig preserves are delicious on hot biscuits on a cold morning. Not to mention toast, English muffins and waffles. The syrup is a wonderful mix-in for salad dressings and marinades – you will keep even the most perceptive foodie guessing with exactly what is that ‘secret ingredient’.

Pureed fig preserves are a wonderful mix in to muffins and coffee cakes too – think ‘streusel’. In the fall, I like to serve rough chopped fig preserves with some sharp or tangy cheese, a few pecans or walnuts and voilà a quick, creative appetizer that goes nicely with a glass of red.

I think fig preserves and figs in general are right up there with okra and beets as under-appreciated foods. My parents had three strong-producing fig trees in their yard (along with pecan, black walnut and kieffer pear trees) that have sadly gone the way of the dodo. My memories of expectantly watching the fruit grow, then arduously waiting (for an 8 or 9 year old!) for ripening, and then finally helping my mother preserve jar upon jar, are as thick, warm and precious as the fig preserve syrup ladled onto a hot ‘cat head’ biscuit. I hope the feelings those memories evoke never leaves me.

The lemon slices in fig preserves are a real treat too - we would fight over them at my house.

The lemon slices in fig preserves are a real treat too – we would fight over them at my house.

Fresh figs picked by yours truly. This was after spending a day in a cooler and traveling back to Beaufort. Ripe figs will 'crack' a bit like you see here - it means they are yummy!

Fresh figs picked by yours truly. This was after spending a day in a cooler and traveling back to Beaufort. Ripe figs will ‘crack’ a bit like you see here – it means they are yummy!

Remove the green stems from the figs and wash them off before tossing -gently -into the pot with the lemons, water and sugar.

Remove the green stems from the figs and wash them off before tossing -gently -into the pot with the lemons, water and sugar.

After almost 2 hours of simmering and occasional stirring.

After almost 2 hours of simmering and occasional stirring.

After 3 hours, the figs have turned a darker color. You can ladle off any foam if you want or leave it.

After 3 hours, the figs have turned a darker color. You can ladle off any foam if you want or leave it.

Have all jars, lids and rings washed and sanitized (I hold prewashed jars and lids in a pot of simmering hot water). This is my typical setup - love the wide mouth funnel. Helps reduce the messiness, a little anyway!

Have all jars, lids and rings washed and sanitized (I hold prewashed jars and lids in a pot of simmering hot water). This is my typical setup – love the wide mouth funnel. Helps reduce the messiness, a little anyway!

The jarred preserves. This batch made 6 pint jars.

The jarred preserves. This batch made 6 pint jars.

a

Fig Preserves

  • 8 cups whole fresh figs, washed and green stems removed
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 4—5 whole lemons sliced, seeds removed
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • whole cloves – optional*

In a very large pot mix the sugar, water and salt. Stir in the figs and lemons. Mix gently but thoroughly as the pot slowly heats. Bring the mixture up to a low boil and continue to stir occasionally. This can take 30 minutes. Allow to boil gently for 4-5 minutes.

Turn heat down to a simmer. Continue to cook for 2 to 2 ½ more hours, stirring regularly. Adjust heat as needed to keep a low simmer but not burn the preserves. Prepare jars, lids and rings by washing, rinsing and placing I a hot water bath, boiling them for several minutes and keeping them hot. When the fig preserve syrup is thick it is time to can the preserves.

Fill a few jars at a time, 2 or 3, leaving 1 ¼ inch space at the top of the jar. Be sure to include at least 2 slices of lemon in each jar. Wipe mouth of jars after filled, so that there is no syrup or preserves to interfere with the lid sealing. I like to add a few whole cloves to my preserves – 3 or 4 – because I love cloves, but this is optional. Top each jar with a lid and secure with a ring.

As I’ve stated in the past you can return the jars to a hot water bath and boil for 7-8 minutes. However, if your preserves are hot when you filled your jars and your jars are hot (and have been sanitized) they should seal after filling, and there is no need to use a boiling hot water bath. All jars should seal within 1 hour of canning – you should hear a “pop” and the top of the lid will be slightly indented down. If not, then place in a boiling hot water bath.

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Ramblings: Dog days of summer arrive with football, fresh figs and… optimism?

Ahhh, so it is August 1 and the proverbial dog days of summer have arrived here in the Lowcountry. Like clockwork, I opened the door this morning to be greeted by what my Dear Hubby describes as, “an all-enveloping blanket of humidity and heat”. Like a burning, slow motion tidal wave, it affects pretty much everything and everyone in its path from now until mid-September.

Add to this the low-slung haze and the oppressive daily heat index, and people around these parts either high-tail it for cooler temps, say in the elevations of  western North Carolina or Virginia for a week or two, or they simply learn to appreciate the annual scorch-fest known as August.

Now, it’s been hot here pretty much all summer – we did have a few days in the 80’s during June – but most days were measured in the high 90’s and last week the thermometer called in sick after registering 110 degrees for three days in a row. Lots of places around the country have been h-o-t and you’d think us Southerners would be “used” to it. Well, this Southerner is not.

This is not my favorite time of the year. In fact, to me there are only 3 good things about August:

  • Knowing that in about 6 weeks, it will be over for another year
  • College football season begins
  • Local figs are finally ripe

Well, if one can find figs, they should be in-season in my area in August. I am in an all-out hunt for local figs now, so “God willing and the creek don’t rise”, in the next 2 weeks or so I’ll have some figgy recipes to share.

In my parents yard, there were three fig trees – well, until my good-intentioned father pruned one to death, then we had two. They produced abundant crops of figs, if we could keep the birds (and the neighbors) out of them. My mother always made whole fig preserves, which like chow-chow and other oddly old-fashioned and quirky preserves, was not a favorite of mine until I got older and grew into my taste buds.

The common fig (Ficus carica) is native of the Middle East and was one of the first plants cultivated by humans. It was a common food source for the Romans and used to fatten geese for the production of a precursor of foie gras.

Fresh figs are one of nature’s most wonderfully tasting foods – if you’ve never had them – or rather, never had sweet, ripe ones – that is a real shame. Obviously running out the screen door and picking them at will off your mama’s tree is preferred, but I have bought decent figs at the farmer’s market since my mama’s yard is not in close proximity. I have also purchased mediocre ones from the grocery store, when my craving for fresh figs was high, my willpower was low, and no fig trees in northern Alabama.

Preserved figs are now one of my favorites and next to homemade apple butter, the thing I desire most on my breakfast biscuit. Pureed preserves also make a wonderfully moist addition to spice cake batter and a tasty morsel on the cheese board.

Another detail about fig trees is that they go completely bare during the winter. All the leaves drop and the stark and naked tree is left to over-winter. If one does not realize that it is a fig tree, and have the faith that it will bloom anew in the spring and bear fruit after a long (hot) summer, you would think it’s all she-wrote for that tree. But then, spring arrives and the leaves sprout, buds bloom and if the pruning shears have been left alone, all is well again with that fig tree. Take a bite of a fresh picked, ripe fig and you’ll understand what I mean.

It takes all kinds – all types of people, events and things to make the world go round, I suppose – even the dog days of summer.

“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes

or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig. I answer you that there

must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”

– Epictetus